The Road from Brighton Pier

William Rodgers

  • Livingstone’s Labour: A Programme for the Nineties by Ken Livingstone
    Unwin Hyman, 310 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 04 440346 1

The triumvirate of Attlee, Bevin and Morrison that led Labour through the wartime coalition years and into its most fruitful period of office was representative of the pluralist nature of the Party. Clement Attlee was a Fabian socialist from a middle-class background; Ernest Bevin, born into poverty in rural Somerset, had created the Transport and General Workers Union; and Herbert Morrison, the shop assistant straight out of Mr Polly, had risen to influence through local government in London, including the leadership of the London County Council.

The later decline in the authority of trade unionists in Parliament was to have serious consequences, but the virtual disappearance of senior figures in local government has passed unremarked. In the Wilson and Callaghan Cabinets there were only two or three ministers who had served as local councillors and none who had led a Borough or County Council. Local government leaders received their knighthoods and occasionally went to the House of Lords. Secondary figures arrived at Westminster, but disappeared onto the backbenches. The transition from the sober, practical life of the Council Chamber to the histrionics of the House of Commons proved hard to make.

Ken Livingstone is in lineal descent from Herbert Morrison. Until it was abolished from under him by Mrs Thatcher, he led the GLC which had replaced the London County Council in the Sixties. But there the parallel ends. At its best, the LCC was an outstandingly well-run local authority, administering wide statutory powers for the benefit of Londoners. Morrison did much to create it and to ensure that his heirs and successors could pursue imaginative policies on transport, housing, planning and leisure. He became the dominant influence in the LCC in 1925, led it through six critical years when he was already a major Parliamentary figure, and retained a close interest in it when in government.

Livingstone is of very different mettle. The GLC had a much restricted strategic role and, despite the expensive campaign mounted in its defence, its disappearance has been no great loss except to those minority groups and interests (some of them worthy) whose political support Livingstone ensured through the generous dispersal of ratepayers’ money. In this, his personal manifesto, he has remarkably little to say about local government. There is a brief attempt to show that ‘the loony left’ was not as loony as it seemed, and that the GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group (a typical Livingstone invention) and the GLC Women’s Group were pioneering and effective. There is also the ritual genuflection in favour of regional government and criticism of the failure of the Labour Party to campaign adequately to save the GLC (there is no reference to the fate of the Metropolitan Counties, also abolished by Mrs Thatcher). Ken Livingstone was catapulted into public prominence by his seizure of the GLC leadership in 1981. But there is little evidence that he cares deeply about local government and the spread of power it represents. If he was sitting in No 10, he would be no more tolerant of political diversity than Mrs Thatcher.

What does Livingstone really care about? And how would he choose his priorities if the opportunity should ever occur? ‘If Labour is to be able to assemble the electoral coalition which can deliver a majority Labour government,’ he writes, ‘then our policies must be seen to be both modern and relevant.’ He concentrates on ‘key areas where we have failed in the past’. ‘First and most vital’ of these is the economy, he believes, as did Gaitskell, Wilson and Callaghan. Economic policy will be ‘fashioned in co-operation with the trade unions’ (shades of 1964 and George Brown) and will promote information technology and biotechnology (‘the white heat of a new industrial revolution’ revived). But he then shows a lack of coherence that suggests that he neither understands nor cares.

Labour ‘should become a party of sound money’ because its supporters are the worst hit by inflation (not, on the evidence, true), but there must be no wage restraint. Two-thirds of voters (from amongst whom Labour will win its majority) should be guaranteed no tax increases, although ‘a major programme of public works in the classic Keynesian pattern’ will lead Britain’s economic reconstruction. As for industrial production, investment controls and regional enterprise boards will help to ensure high-quality goods of the kind that Britain must otherwise import. Apart from a cut in defence spending, the key to this bit of the jigsaw is to bring investment back from overseas as a result of Labour ‘imposing its will’ on financial institutions and multinational corporations. Here Livingstone springs a surprise: the individual most responsible for Britain’s current plight is Sir Robert Peel. The repeal of the Corn Laws defused the revolutionary potential of the working class and gave it an interest in the preservation of empire. Peel’s ‘historic compromise’ thus led to the dominant role of ‘finance capital’ and, in due course, to the spiral of industrial decline.

It is difficult to believe that Livingstone takes this nonsense seriously. The secret of his advocacy appears to lie in his belief in ‘assembling a coalition’. Far from being a spokesman for the principled Left, he is a pragmatist, building on his GLC experience and throwing out morsels of comfort and encouragement to anyone, anywhere in the political spectrum that might be inclined to vote Labour.

This also accounts for some routine and unexceptional proposals. He supports Charter 88, because it appeals to the ‘very large section of concerned middle-class opinion which is a vital part of any anti-Tory majority’. He favours a Bill of Rights, a Freedom of Information Act, fixed-term Parliaments and PR, sensibly preferring a variant of the German list system. There are eccentricities, like civil servants being responsible to the House of Commons and ‘at least a dozen MPs’ being appointed to each government department ‘to establish firm Ministerial control’. But there is little here that would not commend itself to a good social democrat. There are rewards for the Trade Unions, the concerned middle classes and the greens. Throw in women (end ‘the culture of masculinity’), black people (‘Labour didn’t listen’), the Irish (‘troops out’) and a good dose of anti-Americanism (Europe has been ‘made in the USA’), and the coalition is complete. Labour is ready to win.

There is something fetching about the simplicity of Livingstone’s Labour. This is not Red Ken of the barricades, but Ken Livingstone with his smile – plausible, open, and engaging in his presumption. It is the voice of the legitimate Left, Tribune circa 1960, brought up to date. For the moment, the Hard Left shenanigans of the Seventies and Eighties are over. Livingstone has lost his seat on Labour’s Executive Committee and internal party management will be the least of Neil Kinnock’s worries this side of Polling Day.

There is an irony in all this. Livingstone’s argument about the 1987 General Election is that Labour ran a very professional campaign, but with a message that was already losing its appeal thirty years ago. This was presumably the message which the Gaitskellite revisionists embroidered on Morrisonian socialism, and to which Tribune and the Bevanites offered an alternative. Thus the discussion comes full circle.

In one important sense, Livingstone is right. Gaitskell’s failure to change Clause 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution – defeated by an alliance of the Left and the Trade Unions – has echoed down the years. It was Labour’s chance to come to terms with the decline in the blue-collar working class and a rise in living standards during the Fifties which exceeded that between the wars. Livingstone’s fault is complacency. In only three of the ten general elections since 1951 has Labour won a larger share of the popular vote than the Tories; and, lest we forget, Labour did not lose the 1987 Election by a whisker, but with a smaller share of the vote than in 1935. Building a coalition Livingstone-fashion is not enough. Labour has to come to terms with the permanent erosion of its political base and the unacceptability of its dependence on the Trade Unions.

In Attlee’s Cabinet, Ernest Bevin, although Foreign Secretary, remained the unmistakable voice of the Trade Unions, and there were three other trade-unionists of lesser weight besides him. In the Wilson and Callaghan Cabinets between 1974 and 1979 there was no one who had held significant trade union office. Attlee faced some tension with the Trade Unions over pay policy and occasional strikes, but overwhelmingly the Unions accepted the authority of the Government and its obligation to act in the perceived national interest. By contrast, Wilson returned to No 10 in 1974 with the ‘social contract’ tied around his neck and saw inflation rise to 27 per cent before the Winter of Discontent that did for Callaghan. Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon were not alone amongst trade-unionists in having ready access to No 10. The ‘tripartism’ of the Sixties had given way to what virtually amounted to a joint responsibility for government, with decisions of the General Council of the TUC being as important as those of the Cabinet. Ministers were reminded of the wider influence of the Trade Unions if a row threatened, but mostly ministers acquiesced when faced with Union pressure.

There is no reason to believe that the relationship between a future Labour government and the Unions would be different. Ken Livingstone sees the Unions as the centrepiece of his coalition. He makes no criticism of them except to reject ‘the new realism’ of the electricians and engineers, based, as he sees it, on ‘open collaboration with the employers’. As for Neil Kinnock, at best he has shown a gingerly reluctance to endorse all strikes, having been unwilling to make a single protest about Union behaviour during the Winter of Discontent.

The TUC will be discreet, this side of a general election, about putting pressure on the Labour Party to repeal Mrs Thatcher’s industrial relations legislation. But at its Brighton Conference Labour decided that a future government would allow some forms of secondary picketing, remove the possibility of sequestration from unions that ignored the courts and set up special industrial tribunals to bypass the normal legal system. This opens the door for at least a partial return to the abuse of trade-union power that so alienated voters in the Seventies.

If Kinnock seriously envisages a different relationship between the Labour Party and the Unions – separate and pursuing their different and proper responsibilities – his first task is to reverse the decision of 1981, whereby the Unions became part of an electoral college which chooses the Labour leader and putattive prime minister. It is sometimes forgotten that it was not the election of Michael Foot to succeed James Callaghan or the drift to unilateral nuclear disarmament that provided the occasion for the launch of the SDP, but this enhancement of trade-union power.

There is nothing in this book about health and little about education, the two issues which, in desperation, might send voters into the Labour Party’s arms. Labour as the party of the consumer has much to recommend it, although it would mean turning away from the Trade Unions, the strongest producer interest of them all.

Ken Livingstone hits a number of wrong targets. One is a small organisation set up and financed thirty years ago by a group of long standing members of the Labour Party to espouse what they called ‘a non-doctrinal, practical, humanitarian socialism – a creed of conscience and reform rather than of class hatred’. The Campaign for Democratic Socialism won its immediate battle in support of Hugh Gaitskell, but eventually lost the war. And yet the idea of a party of conscience and reform is as attractive as it is simple. Take a strong commitment to the proper funding of education, health and housing, add the essence of Livingstone on constitutional change and the environment, concede that there is much in Mrs Thatcher’s market economy that works better than nationalisation and state intervention, and you have a programme to sweep the nation. Labour could do it, but Labour won’t.